Ministers Speak Up, Encourage Action

Posted by dcparris on Nov 18, 2005 8:40 AM
LXer; By DC Parris

LXer Feature

A small group of ministers spoke out on OpenDocument, challenging Microsoft to support it in their office suite. The reaction we drew was mixed, but largely positive. We simply expressed what many already felt, but words are meaningless unless followed by action.


Normally, when the technology community engages in religious discussions, they involve vi cultists and emacs heretics or the distro holy wars. So when a small group of geeky preachers and a visually-impaired church elder openly and publicly challenged Microsoft to support OpenDocument for the sake of the disadvantaged, quite a few people stood up and took notice. Our press release was Slashdotted, and positive responses have come from all over the world. The question for some was, why would a handful of preachers get involved in a technology issue?

Clergy on the Forefront of Technology

It may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the Christian clergy to see ministers (or representatives of any faith) get involved in a technology issue. Yet, ministers have nearly always spoken up for the underprivileged. John Brown, of Harper's Ferry fame, took up arms in an effort to free the slaves. Don't tell me you didn't know he was a fine preacher. Should we speak of Martin Luther King, who led the Civil Rights movement in the South? What about Malcolm X, who led as an Islamic clergyman in the Northern U.S.? They did not speak to technological issues, yet technological issues need to be addressed in such a way as to benefit the greatest number of people. OpenDocument would benefit the greatest number of people today, over and above what Microsoft can do with their restrictive, proprietary XML format.

Speaking as one of those ministers, we recognized that the battle over the OpenDocument format (ODF) in Massachusetts will likely spill over to every other state in the union. We also recognized that the visually-impaired are not the only ones who will benefit from ODF support in MS Office. The economically disadvantaged also stand to lose out if OpenDocument is not used. That would literally trample the rights of the poor to gain equal access to information. While Curtis Chong seems to be widely respected as a spokesperson for people with disabilities, one wonders how he would feel about the need for Microsoft to support OpenDocument. That said, the poor have little or no voice. The religious institutions in our country have traditionally spoken up for the poor. Thus, we felt it necessary to address their needs as well.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that my state, or your state, could be the next state to fight it out over OpenDocument. Nor do I have to be a citizen of Massachusetts to care about what happens there. When the tsunami hit Southern Asia, we all cared about that. The same phenomenon occurred when London's transportation system was attacked. North Carolina not the only state impacted by the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. So as ministers from Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, we were joined by a visually-impaired Christian from South Dakota and another Christian in the United Kingdom in making our statement. We also managed to cross denominational barriers, ranging from Baptists to Methodists and Weslyans.

The Need for Microsoft to Support OpenDocument

With respect to supporting OpenDocument in their office suite, Microsoft faces a definite dillemma. On the one hand, it would seem likely that they would lose a great deal of money to all those people who now see no need to purchase their software. That's understandable. However, they also risk prohibiting their customers - including the visually-impaired - from sharing documents across operating systems and office suites. If the rest of the world can do so, why not the visually-impaired who so depend on MS Office? In other words, they'll be locking their own (currently captive) customers out of the true interoperability space. The visually-impaired could, conceivably, file a suit against Microsoft for preventing them from enjoying true interoperability in a heterogeneous tech world.

If Massachusetts were to reverse the decision, and settle on Microsoft's XML format, that would leave the low-income and other disadvantaged people out in the cold. After all, the whole reason Microsoft won't release their own XML format to meet the state's requirements is to force people into buying their software so they can share documents with each other. Given that most people who are economically disadvantaged - including people with disabilities - cannot afford Microsoft Office, their only realistic choices for accessing government documents in electronic format would be or KOffice (or another libre office suite). Some have raised concerns about undocumented binary information being included in Microsoft's format, which raises a problem. If Microsoft's XML format is not as open as Microsoft claims it is, will not be able to render the documents as it should, not because is inferior, but because Microsoft's format is intentionally obfuscated.

OpenDocument offers a sense of hope for those trying to elevate their economic status through entrepreneurial enterprises. Many of those starting businesses have modest incomes, and often start with illegitimate copies of Microsoft's software to get started. Even though it would be difficult to imagine Microsoft hunting down someone who uses MS Office to produce fliers for her new catering business, their new mandatory registration is certainly a step toward closing the loopholes in their registration system. Many business people today (and not just the poor ones) keep a copy of Microsoft Office handy only because some customers require a high-fidelity rendering of the documents they share.

Only One Thing Left to Do

We held the position that Microsoft can and should support OpenDocument in Microsoft Office, rather than fight a political battle that hurts the disadvantaged more than it helps Microsoft. Our statement addressed, not only the visually-impaired, but also the economically disadvantaged - people who often have little or no voice in the political or business arenas. We expressed what many have long felt, and either had no official voice through which to express themselves, or did not know quite how to put it in words.

The supportive e-mails are great. The encouraging words are, well, encouraging. Still, there's one thing left to do. The one thing that everyone can do right now is get involved. You can jump on the accessibility software development bandwagon, e-mail the politicians in Massachusetts, or tell your friends and neighbors and third cousins to demand OpenDocument support in Microsoft Office. I encourage you - even if you're not a person of faith - to speak up for the right of the underprivileged and the disabled to enjoy the ability share documents across operating systems and office suites, as opposed to being locked out of upward mobility by proprietary licenses.

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